In its heyday, the American musical theater was dominated by Jews. As we learned earlier this week (with the opening of "Legs Diamond"), there is no more American musical theater. Thus, where it might once have seemed odd for musicals with Jewish themes, which used to be done regularly on Broadway, to be performed Off-Off-Broadway, it now seems entirely proper that the Jewish Repertory Theater acts as a convalescent home for ailing specimens.
A few years ago, JRT mounted an Arthur Miller musical based on Genesis. Last season, it revived Jerry Herman's "The Grand Tour" in a way that made even Herman think better of it.
Now comes "Chu Chem," a revival of a 1966 musical by Mitch Leigh that closed on its out-of-town tryout in Philadelphia when one of its stars, Molly Picon, withdrew. The show is set in China 600 years ago when three Jews from Europe come in search of other Jews who disappeared there 400 years earlier.
The unmarried daughter in the search party immediately takes upon herself the task of "liberating" Chinese women from footbinding. Not having been in Philadelphia 22 years ago, I don't know if the show then had such strong feminist underpinnings.
Nor am I sure that this sort of contemporizing makes "Chu Chem" any more viable than it was then.
The highly convoluted plot also has a love story (the local prince is, for no discernible reason, smitten with the young woman who wants to free his concubines) and more subplots than make any sense. The score is not prepossessing, though it has one very beautiful song, "It Must Be Good for Me," eloquently sung by Emily Zacharias. There is also an attractive duet she and Paul Nakauchi handle powerfully.
Most of the songs, however, deal in coy humor, though they have been wittily, grandly arranged for synthesizer by Don Jones.
The show depends in large part on the skillful Mark Zeller, who, like Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof," chats up the audience, God and his dead wife, and makes jokes at every opportunity.
The subject - the Jews who assimilated into Chinese life because there was no anti-Semitism to keep them separate - is too interesting for this Borscht Belt treatment.
To be bluntly honest, the standards of the Jewish Repertory Theater - not on any account to be confused with the admirable American Jewish Theater - have, in my experience, proved so excessively modest that I had virtually marked the company off my visiting list.
However, the paper promise of "Chu Chem," a play by Ted Allan ("Oh, What a Lovely War"), with a score by Mitch Leigh ("Man of La Mancha") and directed by Albert Marre ("Kismet"), which opened last night, was so intriguing that I permitted myself to be lured once more to the East 14th Street Y for another encounter.
I am glad I was so lured. It only goes to show, never despair. However, "Chu Chem" is a very curious kind of an entertainment - quite different from, say, "Man of La Mancha," yet with its own very definite charms.
It calls itself the First Chinese-Jewish musical, though it is probably best described as a chamber musical. One could scarcely envisage it on Broadway, yet it could probably exist quite happily Off-Broadway for a while, and could have a decent life in the resident theater across the country, as well as having a future with amateur groups.
Allan's play, which utilizes very broad adaptations of oriental techniques, is quite delightful. It is based on the historic fact (I didn't know this until I read it in the program, by the way) that a millennium or so ago a group of Jews settled in Kai Feng, China, and there are apparently relics of a synagogue erected there in 1163 A.D.
Chu Chem, a Jewish wise man searching for truth, his brother Jakob, also searching but not so wise, and his daughter Lotte, arrive one fine day in China looking, in part, for the lost Jews.
Lotte falls in love with the local Prince, who, after some initial hauteur, reciprocates. But when East meets Mid-East, for a time there, it seems that the twain will never twine, the differences of cultural custom being what they were.
However love prevails - and most divertingly. Allan, a Canadian who has, I think, worked chiefly in Britain, has produced a delicious fable here, that is folksy but not too folksy. Call it "Lute on the Roof," and you might be getting close.
Certainly Chu Chem bears a shrewd family resemblance to Tevye, even if he is far less adaptable, and the strong-willed Lotte, a modern woman far beyond her time, is another terrific character.
Leigh's score (the lyrics, fluent enough, are by Jim Haines and Jack Wohl) perhaps lacks the knockout punch of a song such as "The Impossible Dream," but an adroit patter number called, coincidentally, "It's Possible," is fun, and once in a while the music does get some genuine lyric steam up.
Aided by the simple sets of Bob Mitchell and the exceptionally attractive and imaginative costumes by Ken Yount, Marre has staged this attractive mini-musical with considerable dash and feeling.
And the performances are most handsome, with Mark Zeller, a model of Jewish wit and learning as the rabbinical Chu Chem, a spirited Emily Zacharias as the dauntless Lotte, and Thom Sesma as the noble Prince who finds a new kind of love.
Indeed this little kosher eggroll of a show proves, on its own terms, delicious. If this is the first Chinese-Jewish musical, maybe we should be looking forward to the second, and even the third.
By the way, they find the Jews. Watch for the finale!
Hundreds and hundreds of years ago, Jews working their way along the silk route settled in the Chinese city of Kaifeng, and that's how ''Chu Chem,'' a new musical comedy, came to open this week at the Jewish Repertory Theater.
Although ''Chu Chem'' is based on a sober historical footnote, the approach by Ted Allan, who wrote the play, and Mitch Leigh, who wrote the music to lively lyrics by Jim Haines and Jack Wohl, does not, thank goodness, mire itself in literal academic exegesis. To the contrary, if it took itself a scintilla more seriously, it would not be nearly as amusing.
''Chu Chem,'' practically a spoof of itself, is set 600 years ago, when three Jews - a young woman, her father and her uncle - arrive in Kaifeng in search of a lost tribe of Israel that they heard had settled there centuries earlier. The young woman, a modern feminist in 1300's clothing, is a regular Connecticut yente in Lord Ming's court, what with campaigns against footbinding and concubinage.
But never mind; Lord Ming is a handsome young prince who regards Lotte as quite a dish (an ancient Chinese evaluation) and the ensuing tale of love and war never really gets in the way of the comedy.
The music is tuneful enough, and two numbers are especially clever in word and sound: ''It's Possible,'' which speculates on problems arising from having two wives, and ''Our Kind of War,'' a rollicking Marxian (Groucho) chant done in the style of a slick early-1930's Hollywood musical. Under Albert Marre's bright and energetic direction, the cast rises to the lure - of emoting, if not to emotion - and it is good fun.
Emily Zacharias, as the Jewish woman, has a voice that is good to listen to, vibrant and eloquent in song and speech. Thom Sesma, burdened with the straightest role in the piece, the Prince, imbues it with dignity and can also put a love song over quite nicely. Mark Zeller, as the father, has a Tevye-like worldly wisdom that, with true comic ingenuity, he embellishes with waggling eyebrows, sensitive timing and a raspy voice that makes it clear this wandering Jew started traveling somewhere south of Westchester.
Irving Burton, as the uncle who is dedicated to finding the lost Jews, performs in the best manner of appealing and quaint old gent. Chev Rodgers is no less lovable as a ferocious-looking villain who menaces but rarely hurts. Zoie Lam plays a concubine with coquettish humor and grace. The cast, a blend of actors with roots in the Far East and the West, is united in fun, including the prompters and prop men who are out of Chinese theater tradition, as are some of the devices that represent rain and a raging river. Rosalind Newman's choreography is neatly adapted to a limited stage that is imaginatively adorned by Bob Mitchell's creative sets.
Historical footnote: the name ''Chu Chem'' is an inside joke. With the ''Ch'' sounded as in ''China,'' it's the title the prince gives to his prospective father-in-law; when the ''Ch'' is sounded as in ''Chutzpah,'' it is Hebrew for ''wise one.'' If it's etymology you want, go to the dictionary. If it's a chuckle or two you want, go to the Jewish Rep.